Le Joie d’Ete – “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”

Posted June 29, 2010 by dumbricht
Categories: Family Movie Recommendation

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Mr. Hulot’s Holiday/ Not Rated/ 83 mins.

Time to turn off the brains, summer vacation is here.  Let us gorge on hot dogs and fry by the pool.  We deserve a rest, and Hollywood obliges with three months of mindless action and sophomoric hijinks.  Let us be thankful for this, if it wasn’t for summer movies we would never know the answer to the question, “How buff could Jake Gyllenhaal become if he spent endless hours in the gym?”  In honor of the season, I showed my four and seven year olds a movie that epitomizes summer, “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”.  Did I mention that it is black and white, in French, and nearly silent.  In other words, it can’t miss.

“Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” is a light look at how the French vacationed in the 1950s.  There is no real plot to discuss.  The movie consists of a number of vignettes, capturing the rhythm of a weeklong vacation at the beach.  The characters swim, have lunch, sunbathe, eat lunch again, play tennis, picnic, go swimming once more, eat dinner, and witness fireworks.  Not dissimilar to the way most people could sum up their own family vacation. 

This is the first film featuring the character of Mr. Hulot.  Created by Jacques Tati, Mr. Hulot is as physically recognizable as Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp.  Usually wearing an oversized hat and sporting a pipe, Hulot is amiable and polite, always seeming to apologize for what he has done or what he is about to do.  Of course, this is when he is not bounding away from the scene, trying to escape blame.  He bumbled his way through four films from the 1950s to the early 1970s, each with a message about society at the time. 

While a comedy, the film is not truly funny.  You do not laugh uproariously at the jokes, rather you smile at their cleverness.  Tati was known for his meticulous planning of even the simplest of situations.  The film could be used to help teach older children about the art of a good gag.  The set ups and pay offs are well defined and easy to explain.     

However, let’s tackle the lingering question, “How could any kid possibly enjoy an unfunny French comedy?”  I asked the kids, and in true four and seven year old fashion they gave me no answer.  I do know they laughed out loud twice. The first time when a dog would not move out of the road as Mr. Hulot attempted to drive past.  The second was when beachgoers mistook Mr. Hulot for a shark.

Neither of those scenes sounds any more compelling than your average cartoon.  And that is why kids may gravitate towards Mr. Hulot.  He is a cartoon character in the same way Pee-wee Herman is one.  Mr. Hulot is awkward enough to create problems, but good hearted enough that you want to be around him.  It is true that he causes minor headaches for the characters in the film, but they continue to include him in every group activity.

The kids also connect to the movie’s light air.  The movie may remind adults of their own summer memories, but it reminds kids of most days of their lives.  Kids’ interests in life are not serious, they revolve around play.  Mr. Hulot spends most of his time playing.  The most serious thing Mr. Hulot does is eat lunch.  The most serious thing any character does is take a phone call, and that character is played for a laugh as every activity he attempts is interrupted by an incredibly important call.  He probably reminds many kids of their Dads.

At the end of the film an English woman asks Mr. Hulot if he will return the following year.  Mr. Hulot politely nods yes.  This was our family’s second visit with Mr. Hulot.  Last year my son proclaimed it was better than “G-Force”, prompting one internet film guru to respond, “Let’s hope he is as open minded at eight.”  I’m sure my son was humoring me last year, but this year both he and his four year old sister were actively engaged.  Next year, my son will be eight.  I asked if we should watch it again at that time.  He politely nodded yes. 

What’s your favorite summer movie?

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The Chipmunk Conundrum

Posted May 17, 2010 by dumbricht
Categories: Family Movie Recommendation, Uncategorized

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Alvin and the Chipmunks/ Rated PG/ Running Time: 92mins

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel/ Rated PG/ Running Time: 88mins

And now we hit the point where I have a crisis of confidence.  I tried to avoid the following.  I wanted to procrastinate until it was forgotten.  However, I made a promise to my kids.  I will just apologize now, because I told them we would discuss “Alvin and the Chipmunks”. 

Unfortunately after two weeks of banging my head against the keyboard, I came up with only one true statement, “Alvin and the Chipmunks is a movie, one that my children have watched many many times.”   I can add that it is a popular series, with the two movies grossing over $800 million at the worldwide box office.  That level of success should make it easy to write a few intelligent paragraphs on The Chipmunks cultural significance.  However, I’m not that good.  So, on that note, I relinquish control of this essay, turning to higher authorities, Amanda (age 4) and Colby (age 6).

Colby:  “I like when Alvin throws the Wii at the TV.”  “I love when Dave slipped on the skateboard.” 

The Chipmunks are Alvin, the troublemaker, Simon, the brains, and Theodore, the naïve.  They sing and make records with a chap named Dave Seville, who acts as their guardian and manager.  They harass him and wreak havoc on his belongings until he snaps and delights the audience with his trademark bellow, “AAAAAAAALLLLLLVINNNNNN!!!!!”  The second movie, “The Squeakquel”, didn’t add much to the formula, just The Chipettes, the female doppelgangers of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore. 

I mentioned they break things, right?  Destruction of property permeates all cartoons and slapstick comedy.  Watching animated chipmunks destroy a kitchen is another example in this long tradition.  It would be easy to say only kids want to destroy, but who are we kidding?  Breaking things is very cathartic.  Unfortunately, we aren’t allowed to do it in everyday life.  So we need the movies to let us vicariously destroy. 

That’s also the reason so many kid’s movies have potty talk.  The movies are filled with words that kids know they can’t say, and parents know they can’t stop them from saying.  My wife says that nothing lights up my daughter’s eyes more than when she says the word “butt”.  Nobody needs to watch a chipmunk discuss bodily functions or lament the fact that he was “dutch ovened”, but potty talk is inevitable.  I may not like it, but since I can not completely suppress it, a movie like this gives the kids a relatively innocent outlet.

Amanda: “I like when they dance.”  “I like the concert” 

The music is the essence of the Chipmunks’ popularity and what differentiates them from other characters.  They recorded their first novelty song, “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”, in 1958 and it has been in heavy holiday rotation ever since.  That means their high pitched versions of popular songs, TV shows, and movies have haunted the childhoods of people aged six to sixty.  They are the first introduction to pop songs for many kids.  In the late 70’s, they taught me about Blondie and Billy Joel.  However, The Chipmunks are one of those things that we definitely outgrow.  Today, nostalgia alone can’t keep me from covering my ears when they come on the radio. 

Amanda and Colby:  “I love love love this movie.”  “It’s cool.”  “It’s so cool and awesome.”  “It’s funny”  “So funny”  “The other one’s so funny too.” 

That pretty much sums it up doesn’t it?  The kids love it, it does not matter one bit if I like it or not.  What about quality?  With summer around the corner, the blogs are full of articles seeped in anger over needless sequels, remakes and reboots and the audiences who mindlessly accept whatever is doled out.  My answer to all of this outrage, does it really matter?

I am not apathetic.  I concede that seeing the resources thrown at some of the crap out there can be frustrating to a struggling filmmaker with a truly marvelous idea.  But, I also live by a few rules.  One, if something is really good, it will be found.  Two, if for some reason it is not found, don’t make excuses, make it yourself.  Three, and perhaps most important for your sanity, no matter how much you complain you will not get rid of the crap, kids love crap.

However, let’s not call “Alvin and the Chipmunks” crap.  Nobody wishes to touch crap, and although box office numbers are not a gauge of quality, they are some measure of popularity.  No one can dispute that The Chipmunks are popular.  They are part of childhood.  Really they are no different than sugar cereals, nutritiously hollow, but oh so tasty.  If your kids live solely on Trix or Fruity Pebbles, they are traveling a road to serious health issues.  If they only watch “Alvin and the Chipmunks”, enlightenment is not at the end of their path.  But that is ok.  Kids can’t only eat vegetables, sometimes they need to be allowed to have ice cream for dinner.  (And for the record, I enjoyed the movies more than I thought I would.)

Whats Your Favorite “Crappy” Childhood Movie?

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The Wonderful World of Miyazaki

Posted April 29, 2010 by dumbricht
Categories: Family Movie Recommendation

Tags: , , , , , ,

Kiki’s Delivery Service/ Rated G/ Running Time: 103 min

My Neighbor Totoro/ Rated G/ Running Time: 86 min

Ponyo/ Rated G/ Running Time: 101 min 

Disney dominated my childhood.  Nearly every one of my movie going experiences in the 1970’s involved a film by the studio.  While live action Disney movies, such as “The Shaggy D.A.” or “The Cat from Outer Space”, captured my six year old imagination, the big events were the animated films.

Disney created a successful formula with their animated features.  Sometimes they were based upon familiar fairy tales.  Nearly always they included an innocent hero/heroine forced to confront a frightening villain with the help of cute animal sidekicks.  All the while they sang a few catchy tunes. 

Every animation studio since has used this formula as their backbone.  It makes comfortable entertainment, but it also creates specific expectations for the audience.  If a film lacks any of these elements, the audience may tune out.  However, there are animators who have created beloved classics outside of the formula.  Perhaps the most successful is the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.

I chose three of Miyazaki’s films to show to my kids.  The first, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is about a young witch in training who must live away from her parents for a year.  The second, “My Neighbor Totoro” tells about the interactions between two young sisters, dealing with their mother’s stay in the hospital, and a group of wood spirits.  The last is Miyazaki’s latest, “Ponyo”, a riff on “The Little Mermaid”, about a young goldfish who wants to become a girl.  Each of these movies is beautiful on its own, and taken together they show many examples of success outside of typical formulas.  

The most striking difference is the fact that there are no conventional villains in many of Miyazaki’s movies.  Most animated films boast a memorable villain who embodies our dark emotions.  The hero spends the film overcoming this characterization of greed, fear, or jealousy, often killing them.  Miyazaki films keep the struggle internal.  Kiki’s nemesis is her loneliness from living in an unfamiliar city and her need to belong.  In “My Neighbor Totoro”, the closest thing to a villain is the possibility that the mother may not leave the hospital.

Another difference is the way characters interact.  Many animated films show characters that are one note: “the mean girl”, “the shy boy”, “the wise old woman”.  Characters in these films are more nuanced.  “Kiki’s Delivery Service” shows particularly rich relationships.  Kiki’s female connections span from peer and rival to sister, mother and grandmother.  Just in real life, the characters will have moments where they are friendly or selfish, loving or jealous.  These complex relationships remind us of ourselves, grounding the stories in reality.

The films are also permeated by a love of nature.  In these worlds, the everyday scenes of nature are controlled by invisible magic lying just beneath the surface.  The Totoros are the protectors of the forest, and Ponyo’s father orchestrates the balance and beauty of the sea.  In fact, the main conflict in “Ponyo” stems from an imbalance in nature and the ensuing repercussions.

These films are joyous meditations on life.  The artwork is lush and fantastical.  Words can not do justice to the details of the cityscape in “Kiki’s Delivery Service” or the sea creatures in “Ponyo”.  It is best to immerse yourself in them and let these unique images wash over you.

All of the movies played well to a new generation of kids raised on Disney and Pixar.  My four year old daughter enjoyed “Kiki’s Delivery Service” the best.  “My Neighbor Totoro” was favored by my six year old son.  Perhaps most importantly, my 36 year old wife was able to put away her Disney baggage and loved them all.

Miyazaki will open your horizons and his unique style of animation will intoxicate you.  I may have spent most of my words highlighting some differences between Miyazaki and Disney, but there are nods to the formula.  Kiki’s smart-alecky black cat is a typical animal sidekick and the plot of “Ponyo” is somewhat goal oriented, like many of the fairy tales.  The films are different, but not so much that they should be frightening.  In fact, do you know who distributes Miyazaki’s films in the U.S.?  Yes, once again, Disney has put their stamp of approval on high quality family entertainment.  They have had me since birth, and I guess I’ll always be loyal to the brand.

What’s your favorite Miyazaki Film?

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The Need for Compassion – “Grave of the Fireflies”

Posted April 25, 2010 by dumbricht
Categories: Family Movie Recommendation

Tags: , , , , ,

Grave of the Fireflies/ Not Rated/ Running Time: 89 mins

“Grave of the Fireflies” absolutely destroyed me.  Every minute of it filled me with dread and sadness.  It touches upon the dark side of life, showing cruelty, alienation, and loss.  It evokes the emotions that we spend most of our lives trying to avoid.  And it should be required viewing for every parent.

The Japanese movie follows Seita, a boy of 14 and his 4 year old sister, Setsuko, during the waning days of World War II.  It is animated, but it is not for children.  Young kids should stay away, not because the images are overtly violent or disturbing, rather the emotions are beyond their comprehension.  

“All war stories are told by survivors,” the director Samuel Fuller once told Roger Ebert.  This is a survival tale as well, but we know within the first few minutes that the children will not survive.  The reasons why the children do not survive make this film vital.  In most films where the audience knows the main character will die, it becomes increasingly suspenseful as the movie progresses.  By the end, we are primed for the moment when the gun goes off, or the accident occurs.  This film offers no easy tragic ending.  Death does not come from a wayward bomb, but from an accumulation of the little acts of selfishness that we commit in our everyday lives.

How often do we put conditions on the love we give one another?  How often do we agree to do something out of obligation and complain about it later?  Early in the film, the children lose their mother and move in with an aunt.  While she accepts them into her home, she refuses to comfort the little girl’s nightmares, belittles the boy for not doing more for the war effort, and doles out meal portions based upon her judgment of who deserves it most.  Despite this, she is no wicked step-mother.  She is trying to survive as well.  Like most of us, she may not even realize that she judges and makes her love conditional.

The children end up alone, forgotten by the world.  Adult selfishness drove them out on their own, but it is childish ego that keeps them there.  The boy refuses to forgive his aunt for her behavior even when their situation becomes so dire that her help is their only hope for survival.  The children spiral downward and all the audience can do is watch as if they are attending a terminally ill relative.  The saddest part is the knowledge that it is all preventable.  All it would take is one person to show compassion to the children or the boy to let go of his ego.

It is difficult for me to connect to a war movie.  I have never lived through a war, so my knowledge comes from the history books and the movies.  Great war movies give you a simulated experience.  But even the best examples, such as the visceral opening invasion of “Saving Private Ryan” or the brutal imagery of “Schindler’s List” will never aptly capture the reality.  The most affecting scene about World War II comes from “The Straight Story”, when two elderly men sit at a bar and tell their war stories.  Both men end the scene crying, overwhelmed by their memories.  The beauty of the scene is its encapsulation of the repercussions of war without focusing on the actions, but rather the feelings. 

The emotional impact of “Grave of the Fireflies” continues to resonate with me weeks after my first viewing.  It has become a touchstone.  It reminds me to be a little kinder, that little actions can have huge repercussions, and to hug my children as much as I can.  There are so many scenes in this film that had me close to tears.  When writing this essay, there were times when I felt a pit in my stomach, choked up from memories of the film.  This does not happen often.

“Grave of the Fireflies” may not be a pleasant emotional experience, but it is powerful and unforgettable.  As parents, we want to teach our kids to be thankful for what they have and to help those in need.  We want them to be compassionate and to remember those who are forgotten by society.    The movie reminds us of the tragic consequences that can occur if we ignore these ideals.  Show it your children as they become old enough, but before that, watch it yourself and remember what is important in life.

What movie reminds you to be a better person?

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Meet the Beatles – “Yellow Submarine”

Posted April 18, 2010 by dumbricht
Categories: Family Movie Recommendation

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Pee-wee Herman: Bridge to the Past

Posted April 11, 2010 by dumbricht
Categories: Family Movie Recommendation

Tags: , , ,

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure/ Rated PG/ 90 mins

At four and six, my oldest kids know they love movies. We love going to the theater together, watching DVDs at home, and my son says he wants to be a “movie maker” when he grows up. Santa gave him a Flip camera for Christmas, and he did indeed become a movie maker. Now it’s time to give him something that many wannabe filmmakers forget about, an education.

No matter how interested we are in movies, whenever we show our kids an “old” movie we are giving them a film education. Every movie we show them holds some importance. Sometimes it is as simple as nostalgia, giving them a glimpse of our childhood. Other times it is because a film is deemed important. Exposing them to classic animation is easy. Six year olds love Disney films today just as much as fifty years ago. However, some genres are a little more difficult and require the use of a rule that all parents know: sometimes you need to trick your kids into doing something that is good for them.

To give my kids a proper film education I want to go all the way back to the beginning, the silent film. Silent films can be a challenge for six year olds, as kids generally don’t’ like black and white, they are beginning readers so won’t be able to comprehend the title cards, and most of the storylines will be over their heads. However, they will understand a great deal of a silent comedy. They will recognize the slapstick humor that has been assimilated into nearly everything they watch, from “Bugs Bunny” to “High School Musical”. Of course I want to show my kids the silent greats like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, but first, I decided to try and trick them with something a little more modern. I began with Pee-wee Herman and “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”.

“Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” tells the story of Pee-wee and his beloved bicycle. The bike is stolen, leading to a cross country journey that takes him to the Alamo, a biker bar and, ultimately, the Warner Brothers Studio Lot. Pee-wee’s is an abnormal world, one where someone as eccentric as him, can be considered the straight man at times.

Pee-wee is a classic silent film character. His crew cut and red bow tie are as distinct as Charlie Chaplin’s bowler hat and cane. There is no need for elaborate character building with either of these two. The audience knows them as soon as they see them.

Pee-wee’s predicaments are also classic silent film set pieces. Two scenes in the film feel directly removed from a silent comedy. The first is when Pee-wee wakes up and uses an elaborate contraption involving pulleys, hamster tubes and anvils to prepare his breakfast. Buster Keaton would be proud, as he made his meal with a slightly less involved system in his short, “The Scarecrow”. The other is towards the end of the film when Pee-wee comes across a burning pet shop. Pee-wee risks his life to save the animals. Using little dialogue, the scene escalates from Pee-wee saving a group of puppies to his reluctant rescue of a handful of snakes (and subsequent fainting, of course).

A way of testing your kids’ tolerance for silent movies would be to turn the sound down during these scenes. While “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” has a number of memorable lines, the majority of the comedy can be enjoyed without the distraction of the soundtrack.

Step one of my master plan seems to have worked as my kids were engrossed by the movie. They rooted for Pee-wee to find his bike, yelled at him to save the snakes, and were mildly frightened by Large Marge, the “dead” trucker. Ultimately, my son captured the essence of Pee-wee when he asked, “Is he a grown up?” Alas, I had no answer to this, but the introduction was complete.

The success of step two of the plan is still to be determined. I will need to show them a real silent comedy. I’m contemplating using the storm scenes of Buster Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” or maybe parts of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”. Whichever film I choose, I will preface it with the same invitation, “Do you guys want to watch something kind of like Pee-wee?”

Have ideas of silent movies I should test on the kids?

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The Second Time I Traumatized My Kid – “E.T.”

Posted March 31, 2010 by dumbricht
Categories: Family Movie Recommendation

Tags: , , , ,

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial/ Rated PG/ Running Time: 115 mins

My name is Dave and I am a good father.  I know I am.  My lovely wife assures me that it’s true.  I hug and kiss my children many times a day.  I read to them, play with them, and try to give them as much attention as I can.  I am confident that I am a good Dad.  However, we all have our bad days.

On our first family trip to Disneyland I wanted to introduce my son to all of my favorite rides.  I didn’t care how old he was.  If he expressed interest in riding Space Mountain, then we were going to get in line.  He wanted no part of the big roller coasters, but he did love “Toy Story”, so I convinced him to try the Buzz Lightyear ride.  Once we got on, he seemed to be enjoying himself, despite the sensory overload.  Then the Evil Emperor Zurg, Buzz Lightyear’s nemesis, appeared, spewing variations of “I’ll get you, Buzz Lightyear!”  The usually not-so-cuddly two-year old clung to me for protection.  I smiled, because a little fear is cute in a child.  Then the ride broke down, a seven foot Zurg towered over us and my son lay in my lap in a catatonic state.  My attempt to initiate him in the joys of the “Happiest Place on Earth” came close to ending with a visit from Child Protective Services.

Since my son’s birth I anticipated the day when I could share my favorite movies with him.  While I would wait to show him “Star Wars”, I came up with justifications to show him other movies as early as possible.  When he was five, my wife and I agreed that it was time for “E.T.”  It was a classic and we had vivid memories of seeing it in the theater when it was such a phenomenon.  Besides, there was nothing “bad” in it.  

Once again, my son appeared to enjoy himself.  He laughed when E.T. dressed up for Halloween.  He worried when E.T.’s friends left him at the beginning and he rejoiced when they returned in the end.  To him, the only confusing element of the movie was the fact that Elliot didn’t wear a helmet when he rode his bike (I explained that the world was a much safer place back then, roads were made out of rubber and it was impossible to crack your skull). 

I wasn’t prepared for his reaction after the movie.  I asked him, “What did you think of it?”  His response was silence, then uncontrollable sobbing.  I had never seen him cry like that before and I have not seen it since.  I can only think of one time in my life when I witnessed a similar reaction, when I was 15 and my mother broke down at my grandmother’s wake.  Did I really force my child into an experience that equaled the emotional response you have after the death of a parent?  I asked him why he was crying, but he couldn’t answer.  This was raw emotion that could not be articulated, particularly by a five year old.    

Maybe I had found an opportunity for a good teaching moment.  However, I didn’t know what to teach, because it was impossible to know what set him off.  Was it the terror of the scientists chasing E.T.?  Was it finding a sick E.T. down by the river?  Or was it the basic fear of being left behind, like E.T. was?  Maybe it was one of those issues or maybe all of them.  One thing was definite.  It was Steven Spielberg’s fault.

Spielberg is the master of emotional manipulation.  He combines all the elements of filmmaking to evoke a true emotional response better than anyone else.   Watching my little buddy bawling, I thought of my own experience with E.T.  I recalled that, surprisingly, this was only my second viewing of the movie since its release.  I saw E.T. in the theater in 1982, and liked it.  But I never wanted to see it again.  When it was rereleased in theaters a few years later, my brother and mother went to see it again.  I refused.  I realize now that I had the same reaction as my son, the only difference is that he was five and I was ten and could suppress my emotions a little bit more.  I didn’t cry when I was ten, but I didn’t want to feel that way again.

I learned something about my son that day.  I was happy to know that he had the capacity to really feel his emotions.  It was a fully human moment and, even if I traumatized him to a point that he had a year long fear of words that ended with the letters “e” and “t”, it was worth it.

I find that it can be hard to determine the appropriate age to show my favorite movies to my kids.  Primarily because I can only guess what their reaction will be.  Should I have waited until my son was older to expose him to E.T.?  Perhaps, but then he wouldn’t have had that experience and it’s the culmination of experiences like that which make up a childhood.  I feel my job as a parent is to expose my children to as wide a range of opportunities and activities as I can, and let them figure out what they like or dislike.  Hopefully, most of the time the reactions will be smiles of joy, but sometimes there will be tears of pain.  Whatever the reaction, I know that it is all part of being fully human.  When I see that, it makes me proud.

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